Deadly Fungal Meningitis Outbreak in Mexico Highlights Risks of Medical Tourism

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A suspected outbreak of fungal meningitis has occurred in Matamoros, Mexico, causing concerns among patients who underwent surgical procedures under epidural anesthesia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has reported that two cosmetic surgery patients who traveled to Matamoros have died in the United States, and over 200 other individuals who had surgery there are also at risk of infection.

Two Deaths and 200+ Possible Infections

In response to the outbreak, the CDC is collaborating with the Mexican Ministry of Health, as well as various state and local health departments in the United States, to swiftly contain the spread of the infection. The outbreak is believed to have originated from two now-closed clinics, River Side Surgical Center and Clinica K-3.

The CDC has classified the two individuals who died as probable cases of fungal meningitis. Additionally, they have identified 11 more possible cases and 14 suspected cases of the infection. Mexico’s Ministry of Health provided the CDC with a list of 221 US residents who may be at risk because they were listed as having had a surgical procedure at one of the two clinics this year. These patients are strongly advised to seek immediate medical attention at their nearest health center, urgent care facility, or emergency room for diagnostic testing for meningitis. The testing process includes an MRI scan and a lumbar puncture, commonly known as a spinal tap.

A Worse Case Scenario

Aesthetic surgeons are pointing to this deadly outbreak as another example of exercising caution when traveling outside of the country for surgery. While many patients seek a cheaper alternative abroad, Tucson, AZ plastic surgeon Raman Mahabir, MD says bargain shopping will affect the standard of care you receive. “Safety quite simply can cost more,” he says. “The less-expensive options south of the border may seem appealing, but then consider where they might be cutting costs. This recent series of devastating complications in Mexico is an illustration of the added risks you take trying to ‘save money.’ Perhaps it is worth saving up for an extra year for the added safety the U.S. has to offer.”

“The recent fungal outbreak is just another example of one of the risks of traveling for plastic surgery,” says Louisville, KY plastic surgeon Chet Mays, MD. “The contamination occurred during a procedure similar to when a woman is having a c-section in America, and they do a spinal epidural. The needle must have been contaminated with fungus due to improper sterile technique. Meningitis can be viral, bacterial, and fungal. This specific type of fungal reported in these outbreaks is not contagious it is only transmitted to the patient with dirty needles at the time of the procedure.”

The Added Risks

La Jolla, CA plastic surgeon Robert Singer, MD adds that there are good surgeons abroad and patients should vet their surgeons via the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery (ISAPS) before committing to any procedure outside of the country. “If you go out of the country for plastic surgery, make sure that the individual is a member of the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. There are many qualified surgeons around the world, however there are also many physicians abroad who have limited training operating in facilities and have no oversight. There is also no follow up if you have a concern. People should bargain shop for T-shirts and flip flops, not cosmetic surgery.”

“There are many well-qualified international plastic surgeons who perform quality and safe procedures outside of the United States, but patients must do their homework to understand qualifications and venue for cosmetic surgery,” stresses Eugene, OR plastic surgeon Mark Jewell, MD.

While medical tourism may offer the allure of cost savings, this deadly fungal meningitis outbreak highlights potential dangers to patients. The many risks involved in seeking cosmetic treatments abroad underscore the importance of thorough research before taking that flight. “In order to achieve excellent cosmetic surgical outcomes that are consistent and safe, a lot has to happen,” notes Grand Rapids, MI, plastic surgeon Bradley Bengtson, MD. “You need a healthy, well-informed patient with reasonable expectations, a well-trained, well-experienced board-certified plastic surgeon, an experienced anesthesiologist in aesthetic procedures, and an accredited surgical facility with current sterilization equipment and up-to-date instrumentation and technology.”

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